It was around 2:00 p.m. when we decided to visit the Orangerie. One of Paris’s smaller major art museums, it sits in the Tuileries Gardens, rising above Parisian sunbathers and cyclists. Admission was free, by some strange combination of our being students and it being the weekend that we didn’t quite understand when communicated to us in French, but we weren’t complaining. Inside, we knew, we would find some of the most famous works of 19th- and early 20th-century Impressionism in the world.
I’d come to Paris for a number of reasons: for a Princeton course, yes, but also on the trail of some of my favorite writers and thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries: James Joyce, Honore de Balzac, James Baldwin, and Walter Benjamin had all lived in the city, and through their writing in some way created Paris for me, what it could mean and what might await me there.
I’d been given some money by Princeton to think and write about the work of Walter Benjamin, German philosopher, literary translator, art critic, and radio star, as it relates to Paris. In many ways what had drawn me to Benjamin was his imagination of the city in the 19th Century, with its crooked streets, conspiring revolutionaries, primitive cameras, and wandering poets. The last decade of Benjamin’s life, the 1930s, was largely spent in the city of lights, and his great unfinished masterpiece, the Arcades Project, was an extensive exploration of Parisian history, culture, technology, and art in the mid-19th Century. In many ways my trip thus far had been haunted by Benjamin; every glimpse of the underground Metro lights, the carefully planned streets, the dimly lit bookstores brought some passage, some fragment of prose from his works to mind.
The Orangerie was no exception. The museum was built in 1852 at the order of Napoleon III, the closest thing Benjamin’s Arcades Project has to a supervillain. Napoleon III was a reactionary conservative emperor, brought to power in a coup which squashed the fragile Second Republic and inaugurated a new empire, characterized by decadent expenditure, violent police crackdowns, and an extensive network of Bonapartist spies which served to thwart revolutionary resistance. The Orangerie originally served to house the orange trees of the Tuileries garden in the Parisian winter; one of the earliest greenhouses, Benjamin wrote of its “glass before its time, premature iron”, which in some way prefigured the giant structures of iron and glass that would define later urban topography. It’s a strange artifact: a proto-dictator’s exotic escape within the city, the delicate natural cultivation of a clownish and brutal regime.
Walking into the museum, the Orangerie’s towering glass walls make the space airy and bright. It is a building uniquely suited to the housing of paintings; as the poet Apollinaire said, “painting is a remarkable art whose light is boundless”; the play of reflected and refracted sunlight across the works of Monet, Degas, Pissarro, and Renoir, painters who already delight in the dance of light and color, lends the works here a living quality, an of-the-moment vibrancy which dazzles the viewer.
The exception to this was Monet’s famous Nympheas, or waterlilies, housed in a windowless section of the museum’s interior. Stepping through the shrouded doorway, it was at first like entering an aquarium. Arrayed along the entirety of the room’s walls, Monet’s ponds dwarfed the typical scale of portrait and still-life paintings. The scale of these Impressionist pondscapes seemed to prefigure the hulking and monumental displays of abstraction and experiment that would fill the museums of the later 20th and 21st century, yet they recognizably belonged to the lost world of the 19th century, with its love of pastel colors and outdoor leisure.
The deep greens and blues of Monet’s pond were strangely illuminated as if from within, by a mastery of brushstroke, color, and perspective that we could not fully understand. The white and pink lilies, often delineated by three or four brushstrokes at the most, were like something from another world: angels drifting down toward earth, haunting yet gentle.
It was strange; I had been taught, by Benjamin and other critics, to consider art as reflective of its time, lending insights into the historical moment of its creation. Walking by portraits by Degas and Renoir, I had wanted to understand these melancholy black-coated men and piano-playing women of the 19th century as people belonging to France, an Empire, a social class, the painter’s social circle. Yet here, in Monet’s lilies, was something that lent meaning to the word eternal; drawing as it did on one of the oldest relationships in all of civilization, that between a man and his garden. Monet’s work seemed to transcend its 19th-century origins. Impressionism was, of course, a movement that sought a new depiction of reality, in part a response to the rise of photographic technology, which threatened to make painting redundant. Yet what was on display here was not mere technique, not exemplary of the 19th century per se. It was a work of great sadness and darkness, yet ignited with the fire of Monet’s love for what he painted. I felt, for a moment, not like an academic observer of Monet, divided from him by an objective critical sensibility and the distance of the years, but like I understood the awe he felt in the gardens of his old age.
We left Monet’s water lilies with a great appetite for Impressionist art. The rest of the museum more than obliged: we passed Degas’ leaping ballerinas in their haloes of gas-light, always straining for something just out of reach, Renoir’s peaches, almost sickeningly colored in overly-sweet pinks, yellows, and oranges, which nonetheless managed to please, Manet’s rich reds and whites in floral still-lifes. But we always came back to Monet, who was to us the clear master of the group. For 5, 10 minutes we stood in front of his painting of a vase of flowers, with bright pinks, reds, yellows, and whites like something out of a dessert platter. It was so clearly painted from a sense of hope, and of abundance: abundance of color, beauty, and talent, and especially from a belief in the capacity of painting to represent and transform. Benjamin once wrote, “it is high time the beauties of the 19th century were discovered.” On this summer day in Paris, we were glad to do just that.